NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Lincoln Memorial has long been my favorite monument in our nation’s capital. Its awesome grandeur and elegant simplicity reflect the unique combination of grandeur and simplicity that was Abraham Lincoln, the most American of presidents, a man who literally rose from humble log cabin origins to the highest political office in the land.
In The Audacity of Hope, then-Sen. Barack Obama wrote that he too has deep affection both for President Lincoln and his memorial. Obama said once he became a senator, he was fond of jogging to the memorial, never tiring of reading the inscriptions of Lincoln’s speeches.
Evidence of President Lincoln’s continuing influence on President Obama is clear and compelling.
On Feb. 10, 2007 Obama formally announced his intention to run for president at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln both served as a state representative and delivered his “House Divided” speech, predicting a nation half free and half slave could not survive.
In an interview with Katie Couric in January 2008, then-candidate Obama responded to a question about which book (excluding the Bible) he believed would be indispensable in the Oval Office. Obama’s answer? Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005), a book that centers on Lincoln’s decision to include some of his most powerful rivals in his first cabinet.
For his election night victory address in Chicago’s Grant Park then president-elect Obama instructed his lead speech writer to provide him a quote from Lincoln that captured the moment:
“Those are values that we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours: ‘We are not enemies, but friends … though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’”
In his first interview after Election Day, the then president-elect said Nov. 17 on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that he had “spent a lot of time reading Lincoln,” noting there was a “wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president that I just find very helpful.” President Lincoln’s influence on President Obama is underscored by his decision to take the presidential oath of office on a “Lincoln” Bible used by the 16th President.
It is my fervent prayer that Barack Obama, as a person of faith, will be a president in the model of Abraham Lincoln, not only seeking to embrace Lincoln’s style of leadership but more importantly his faith in the care and providence of the Almighty.
Although there is much debate about his particular faith beliefs, Lincoln’s own words reveal a deeply spiritual man who was not shy about revealing his abiding dependence on Divine Providence.
The spiritual depth of Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom, the lyrical excellence of his oratory, and his penetrating insights into the nation’s struggles and triumphs mark him as a towering figure in our national heritage.
Lincoln’s deep desire to be on the side of God and His justice is illustrated powerfully in President Lincoln’s matchless Second Inaugural Address. As the terrible ordeal of the Civil War moved toward its conclusion in the spring of 1865, Lincoln noted that both North and South prayed “to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.’” President Lincoln then concluded with these words:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In those immortal words, President Lincoln captured the real humility of all true spirituality.
During the Civil War, a preacher reportedly said to Lincoln that he hoped “the Lord was on our side.” Lincoln is said to have replied, “The Lord is always on the side of the right, but it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”
President Lincoln’s spiritual humility, however, did not lead him to believe in a morally indifferent universe. As Lincoln said in his debates with Stephen Douglas during the Illinois Senate race in 1858, “That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle.”
President Lincoln clearly believed that America had been preserved by Divine Providence in the past and would be in the future: “… this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 1863). His vision was a nation in which self-governing human beings could acknowledge and protect their divinely granted right to freedom.
Lincoln’s frequent and eloquent references to Divine Will and Providence in the affairs of nations cannot be dismissed as mere political rhetoric. Lincoln’s own words reflect his anguished recognition that he did not have the wisdom or the strength to heal the fractured nation or offer sufficient comfort and solace to those who suffered greatly without spiritual guidance.
As he left Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 11, 1861, to go to Washington, Lincoln said: “Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended [George Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.”
In Lincoln (1995), David H. Donald writes, “By the summer of 1862, Lincoln felt especially in need of divine help. Everything, it seemed, was going wrong, and his hope for bringing a speedy end to the war was dashed.”
Early that year the Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, died. That summer, Union forces suffered a string of crushing defeats. All of it prompting Lincoln to say, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
Of the many admirable traits in President Lincoln’s legacy, as a person of faith I hope and pray that dependence on the guidance and wisdom of the Almighty will be among those Lincoln legacies embraced by our nation’s new president.
At this hour in America’s history, we do not need a president consumed by political wrangling and strategizing on how to achieve his agenda. We need a president who is wise enough to acknowledge God as the ultimate source of wisdom and who is humble enough to seek His guidance. In the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, may President Obama be such a leader.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.